I like to think of my generation as the ‘transition generation’. As a second-generation Punjabi-Canadian, I often find myself thinking about all the things I would do differently compared to the generation before me.
Children of immigrants often struggle between two worlds -- who they want to be, and who they are expected to be, and much of this stems from intergenerational trauma and the reproduction of toxic cycles in the South Asian community.
By being a part of the ‘transition generation,’ we are trying to break the reproduction of normalized toxic mindsets and behaviours by choosing and acting differently.
Inspired by a dialogue I facilitated through Moksha on internalized racism and intergenerational trauma, I interviewed three of the attendees to speak about breaking some of these cycles.
I spoke with Priya Toor, Shivani Devika, and Preet Kang -- all of whom are in their early 20s. From hearing their stories, I found that they are already breaking cycles -- like many other immigrants and children of immigrants are trying to do.
All three of them touched on navigating guilt as part of the transition generation.
This is a common experience for many children of immigrants, including Sahaj Kohli, the founder of Brown Girl Therapy, who discussed experiencing unhealthy guilt for the TED: How to Deal With Feelings series.
Sahaj spoke on the relationship between children of immigrants and guilt. She gave examples of not wanting to let your parents down, feeling like you are not enough, or seeming ungrateful. She also explained thrivers' guilt, whereby children feel guilty for having the space to grow, heal, and access resources that their parents could not.
Sahaj added that kids often take on responsibilities for their parents such as being translators, caregivers, or mediators for cultural conflicts within the family.
The expectations of taking on all of these tasks are often higher for eldest daughters because of the perceived gender roles and norms in the South Asian community.
Shivani, one of the participants at the panel, is the eldest of four children and a student at Douglas College, and the founder of Sexual Violence Prevention Awareness.
Shivani shared that she wants the community to move away from this idea that women have to take care of everyone else’s needs before their own.
Shivani explained that she has already broken this cycle for herself by moving out at the age of 20, which has allowed her to prioritize herself and her mental well-being. She says she left a toxic environment, where her family was unsupportive of her through traumatic experiences, further emotionally distressing her by victim blaming.
“To [leave] was like taking a step towards healing and finally being able to own my space. Since moving out I [have the choice] of who I allow [into that space],” she said.
She added that she could then choose to go back to her parents’ houses on her own time. It was not easy for Shivani to leave home, and as the eldest daughter, she worried for the wellbeing of her siblings.
Shivani spoke of guilt, and how initially she felt a lot of it for moving out and putting herself first. Since then, she has overcome it.
One thing that helped Shivani relieve herself of the guilt was going to therapy. She and her counselor focused on understanding her guilt and learning how to respect her own boundaries.
A tool Shivani’s counselor gave her whenever she felt such guilt was to write down why she was feeling the way she did. She was able to learn how to sit with her feelings and recognize that much of her guilt is rooted in being the eldest daughter in a brown household, and the expectation of pleasing everyone at the cost of her own autonomy that the position carries.
“Every time I used to feel guilty about moving out, not seeing my dad enough, or spending enough time with my siblings, I told myself that I’m the one in control of my life now, no one else is.”
I think a lot of women can resonate with Shivani’s story -- it is incredible to see how she has been able to make much-needed changes at such a young age.
Priya, who is a student at SFU and the founder of Project Sisterhood is the middle child out of three and the eldest daughter.
She also echoed the need to prioritize oneself, even if this wasn’t behaviour you saw modelled by your parents.
Priya feels that many children of immigrants are a product of their parents’ trauma, and hopes to raise the next generation from a place of healing. She talked about the difficulties of maintaining a balance between developing her own identity with what has been passed down by her parents.
She shared that when she finally decided to live for herself, her parents saw it as an act of rebellion, which strained their relationship.
“It took me a long time to understand that it is me before anyone else,” she said.
Priya explained that whether or not the relationships improve, it was important for her to take these steps because she did not want to reproduce the cycles that caused her harm to her future children.
Preet, who is the youngest of two children and an international student from India studying at UBC also shared similar hopes for future generations as Shivani and Priya.
He works as a research assistant at Fraser Health and the UBC Sexual Health Lab.
After moving to Canada, Preet found that he had a lot more space to explore his identity and grow as a person. He wants to break the cycle of disavowing the need for space and support that kids need from their families to grow.
Preet feels that overbearing parenting can lead to trust issues between parents and their children, and even codependency in future relationships. He knew in grade nine that he wanted to move away for university. Although he attempted to set boundaries at home, they were never respected.
Preet emphasized the importance of having these conversations.
“I [am comfortable] talking about these things, but if I don’t have space to, then things bottle up,” he said.
However, safe spaces like the ones Preet mentioned are only possible with community support.
He added that “there is no liberation when you go out of the norm because you consistently feel like you’re betraying your culture…[and living ‘in between’] everyone, but when people from the community support you, I think it makes a huge difference.”
I am grateful for how open Shivani, Priya, and Preet were with sharing their stories. They don’t just have hope for future generations, they are determined to create a better community through their individual choices and actions.
Having conversations like these are very important as these are the experiences of many South Asian youth. The experience of the in-between can be extremely isolating, but talking about it gives us a sense of community and solidarity from which we can grow and make changes collectively.
Sometimes I find the idea of the ‘transition generation’ frustrating because it feels like a never-ending journey of unlearning, trying to be better for other people and ourselves, and reaching some perfect place in a far-off future.
But conversations like these remind me that healing is not the end goal -- it is just an ongoing process, and through our choices, maybe we can begin to move from surviving, to thriving.
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